With fewer than 50 days until primaries to determine Michigan party candidates for governor, leading business groups are split on their preferred candidate in the heated Republican race.
The powerful Michigan Chamber of Commerce was one of the first to endorse state Attorney General Bill Schuette, the presumed frontrunner, in March. This month, the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce and the Detroit Regional Chamber endorsed Lt. Gov. Brian Calley. Other influential groups, such as Business Leaders for Michigan, have yet to endorse.
The local endorsements are a boon to Calley, who has been lagging behind Schuette in the polls. But they aren’t necessarily an indicator that the tides are changing for him. Rather, experts say, the split endorsements are likely more a reflection of business community interests in each region.
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“The state chamber tends to take a broader statewide policy view of the world, and that’s their mission ‒ basically, state legislation and overall policy,” said John Truscott, president of the Lansing-based public relations firm Truscott Rossman. “A local chamber is much more focused on the local economy and their issues.”
While chamber endorsements might not move the needle for rank-and-file primary voters, they can come with financial perks that can help candidates cross the finish line later on.
Since the beginning of 2017, chamber groups across the state have spent nearly $850,000 on political campaigns, according to campaign finance data. The vast majority has come from the Michigan Chamber (more than $747,000) and Detroit Chamber (more than $55,000).
The state chamber gave Schuette $5,000 and Calley $10,000 last year before endorsing either. Then after endorsing Schuette in late March, it gave him an additional $25,000. The Detroit Chamber and the Grand Rapids Chamber have not yet contributed to either candidate’s committees.
In the minds of Republican primary voters, Calley offers a more moderate candidacy and Schuette a more conservative one, said long-time Lansing political analyst Bill Ballenger. That’s why it’s no surprise the two local chambers — which cover regions that are generally more moderate than deeply red regions scattered throughout the state — would choose Calley, and the state chamber would prefer Schuette.
John Clark, a professor of political science at Western Michigan University, said this sort of split among business groups is not surprising given that both candidates have a long history of public service — something most primary slates don’t have.
“By many standards, this is really a remarkable Republican primary,” Clark said. “Their resumes are quite similar to one another. In many election years, a political party would be delighted to have somebody like either one of these guys as their nominee.”
Rich Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, said that by early 2018 Democratic candidates had “taken multiple public positions on policy issues that were at odds with employers or the business community.”
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He said it would be “very difficult” for two other Republican candidates for governor ‒ State Sen. Patrick Colbeck (R-Canton) and Saginaw obstetrician Jim Hines ‒ “to build the name ID and recognition needed to win the primary.” That left Calley and Schuette, both “well known to the Michigan business community.”
The PAC chose Schuette due to his experience working in several areas of government relevant to the governor’s office — the federal government, the court system, the state legislature and the executive branch, said Studley.
“Schuette is the most well-qualified and the best candidate who can win in both August and November,” Studley said.
He pushed back when asked whether Schuette’s front-runner status was influential in their choice.
“Our endorsements are not a popularity contest,” he said.
Schuette has also been endorsed by the Michigan Realtors and the Michigan Restaurant Association.
In describing why they chose Calley, the Grand Rapids and Detroit chambers cite a desire to continue the economic growth of the Snyder administration.
“When you think about the progress that we’ve made in the state over the course of the last eight years, the Lt. Gov. has been an instrumental part of that,” said Brad Williams, vice president of government relations for the Detroit Regional Chamber.
The Grand Rapids Chamber was also particularly interested in hearing the candidates’ vision for addressing talent and infrastructure challenges, said the group’s vice president for government affairs, Andy Johnston.
“When you add those things up, it’s just really strong alignment with the West Michigan business community’s priorities,” Johnston said.
Only one Republican candidate will be chosen on August 7. Whichever candidate wins will hope to pick up the others’ endorsements, which is not a slam dunk, said Ballenger.
However, other experts don’t expect a lot of drama.
“Those primary rifts are usually healed fairly quickly, especially when there doesn’t seem to be that big of a dispute on policy between the candidates,” said Matt Grossmann, Director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University.
Grossmann cited recent precedent for business groups uniting behind whoever becomes the Republican nominee.
“Almost none of the (Republican) interest groups supported Snyder and they still got behind him in the general” election, he said.